University of Toronto woke up to an encampment that’s joined the wave of anti-Israel protests in Canada

Social media post from Michael Levitt of Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center on May 2, 2024.

Protests demanding universities divest from Israeli interests and engage in an academic boycott of Israel continue to multiply across Canada after the first one was established over the weekend at McGill University in Montreal.

In the pre-dawn hours of Thursday, demonstrators set up tents at the downtown campus at the University of Toronto after they breached a section of fencing around King’s College Circle, where the university had attached copies of a statement issued Sunday warning that encampments wouldn’t be tolerated.

In response to the breach, the university handed out flyers with information about the rights of protesters, students, and the public on campus.

Demonstrators were given notice in writing that their presence would not be allowed past 10 p.m., which would mean striking the encampment if it remained at that time. (Later, the school decided the demonstration could continue overnight—as long as it remains peaceful.)

In a social media post, organizers occupying the UofT lawn in solidarity with Palestine defied the ultimatum, saying they expect a “potential escalation” and calling for “all community members to show up at 7 PM and help us defend our encampment.”

Thursday afternoon, a counter-protest could also be seen outside the encampment area.

Similar to the U.S. encampments, it appears that at UofT, demonstrators are controlling or monitoring entrances to the protest enclosures.

The wave of encampments comes at a tense seven months of Israel’s deadly Gaza war on Hamas after it attacked southern Israel, killing an estimated 1200 people, and took more than 240 hostages to Gaza, of which more than 100 remain.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry has reported different numbers of fatalities in recent weeks, though news agencies report that ministry’s numbers at more than 34,000 Gazans killed to date in Israel’s military campaign against the terror group after the Oct. 7 attack.

At many North American events, demonstrators continue to call for a ceasefire deal, a return of the hostages, and for improved access for humanitarian aid to enter the territory, among other demands.

Around the same time that the University of Toronto issued its warning against encampments, preemptive barriers were erected on campus—a move which protest groups called an infringement on their civil rights.

At about 4 a.m. Thursday, online videos show that protesters took to the green circular lawn at King’s College Circle, some walking over what appeared to be a downed section of the metal fencing which had been blocking the lawn, after which the encampment took shape inside that circle.

Demonstrators at the university say they had previously tried different tactics for months. In April, protesters occupied the office of Uof T president Meric Gertler, for a reported 30 hours, to demand the institution’s divestment from Israel—something that Gertler declined to do.

On Wednesday, before the encampment had been established, the UofT Faculty Association echoed protesters’ criticisms of civil rights infringements in a written statement to administrators.

The association called the “ban on encampments and building occupations… an unreasonable, disproportionate, and entirely premature attempt to inhibit the lawful and peaceful exercise of freedom of expression.”

The University of Toronto encampment is the first to see tents erected on a college campus in the city since a wave of encampment demonstrations began around two weeks ago following a standoff between protesters—not all of whom are students—and administrators at Columbia University in New York City.

By Thursday afternoon, six encampments were in place across Canada, including a total of three in British Columbia and two remaining in Ontario to date.

There are now more than 120 university encampments across the U.S., including at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), where police were called in to manage a chaotic and violent scene following an alleged attack by pro-Israel counter-protesters on that campus.

Demonstrators at UofT, like on other campuses, are demanding Canadian universities cut ties with and divest from Israel and Israeli companies or academic institutions. Fulfilling this request would begin by disclosing their investments, followed by divesting from “financial holdings from all direct and indirect investments that sustain Israeli apartheid, occupation and illegal settlement of Palestine.”

The third demand calls for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions operating in settlements in the West Bank or that “support or sustain the apartheid policies of the state of Israel and its ongoing genocide in Gaza.”

While other campuses in Toronto have not yet seen the numbers of tents as the new encampment at UofT, that action follows an eight-hours sit-in on Tuesday at an intersection in the middle of the Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) downtown campus, at Victoria and Gould Streets. Members of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) also disrupted a board of governors meeting, according to on-campus media outlet The Eyeopener.

TMU said in a statement that “as protests spread across university campuses, we want to remind community members that everyone who is part of the university, as well as guests and visitors, has a role to play in creating a physically safe, inclusive, supportive and welcoming environment for all.”

That sit-in appeared to have dispersed at around 10 p.m. Tuesday, April 30.

Canadian encampments began with one at McGill University in Montreal on Saturday, followed by another at the University of British Columbia’s Point Grey campus in Vancouver. University of Ottawa’s was the third encampment created within the past week. On Wednesday, an encampment went up at The University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., however, it was over by midnight, the London Free Press reported.

The Canadian Press reported two more had been added in B.C. later on Wednesday, at the University of Victoria, and Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo. By early Thursday morning, May 2, the University of Toronto encampment became the latest of now six current Canadian campus encampments.

In a separate incident in Toronto on Thursday, the office of Jewish city councillor James Pasternak was vandalized with posters, photos, and flyers on its glass exterior, including one that read “don’t be a Zionist.”

Pasternak was attending the scene of a fire at Beth Tzion, a synagogue near Bathurst St. and Wilson Ave., when he learned about the posters plastered to his office door overnight. The city councillor cautioned against speculating about its origins until an investigation is complete.